Posts Tagged ‘TCM’

I am painfully aware of, and grimly resigned to, the fact that many of those among my friends and heavily Teutonic extended family are reflexive Francophobes.  But I would urge even those who are, and especially those who are not, if they are any true lovers of the cinema, to tune in to Turner Classic Movies this month for the second installment of their excellent new Friday Night Spotlight series, starting at 8:00 PM ET.  They’re featuring the work of François Truffaut, one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, the former Cahiers du Cinéma critic who spearheaded the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) as the writer-director of The 400 Blows (1959) and the co-writer of the dreaded Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).

TCM is showing all but two of the 21 features Truffaut directed, and if you do yourself a favor by dipping liberally into his oeuvre, you may find it more diverse than expected.  That’s the experience I had several years ago when frantically attending as much as I could of the comprehensive “Tout Truffaut” festival at New York’s Film Forum (which now won’t even deign to send me a printed schedule, and thus will no longer receive my longtime financial support, but that’s another rant).  Twenty-one features is a sadly small number for such a giant talent, and bespeaks both his criminally short life—he died at 52—and his productivity, averaging almost a film a year through Confidentially Yours (1983).

By way of encouragement, I’m taking the unusual step of enumerating TCM’s entire Truffaut schedule, and while it is beyond the scope of this post to editorialize on every film, I hope it will at least give you some idea of his impressive range.

They kick off on 7/5 with back-to-back showings of his semi-autobiographical Antoine Doinel series, in which we watch Jean-Pierre Léaud age 20 years as his alter ego.  Succeeding The 400 Blows are Antoine and Colette (a short that represents Truffaut’s contribution to the 1962 anthology film Love at Twenty), Stolen Kisses (1968, my personal favorite among his work), Bed and Board (1970), and Love on the Run (1979, both a continuation and a recap of the series, inspired by a marathon showing of the prior entries).  These are followed by the lesser-known but fascinating The Green Room (1978, inexplicably retitled The Vanishing Fiancee), a Henry James adaptation and one of several films in which Truffaut also acts, in which capacity he is best known to American audiences for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

On 7/12, they focus on Truffaut’s noir adaptations, most notably those of Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish):  The Bride Wore Black (1968), featuring Jeanne Moreau and a score by Hitchcock mainstay Bernard Herrmann, and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), with Breathless star Jean-Paul Belmondo (feh) and Catherine Deneuve, which—like the steamy Banderas/Jolie remake, Original Sin (2001)—was based on Waltz into Darkness.  In between they’re showing his swan song, Confidentially Yours, a black-and-white homage to Hitchcockian romantic thrillers, based on a book by Charles Williams; it stars Fanny Ardant, who gave birth to Truffaut’s daughter Joséphine about a year before he died, and French legend Jean-Louis Trintignant (’nuff said).  Topping it off are Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me (1972), a black comedy from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? author Henry Farrell, and his sophomore feature, Shoot the Piano Player (1960), which has celebrated signer Charles Aznavour in the title role and did double duty during last month’s Friday Night Spotlight segment devoted to noir author David Goodis.

TCM provides a mixed bag on 7/19, starting off with The Soft Skin (1964), a tale of adultery featuring Deneuve’s ill-fated elder sister, Françoise Dorléac, and two adaptations of books by Henri-Pierre Roché, both about romantic triangles:  Jules and Jim (1962), starring Oskar Werner and Moreau, and Two English Girls (1971), also with Léaud.  Next is a real rarity, A Story of Water (1961), a short co-directed with Godard, whose work—excepting Alphaville (1965)—I normally loathe; I have yet to see that or the next offering, The Woman Next Door (1981), with Gérard Depardieu and Ardant as dangerously obsessive lovers.  Finally, The Man Who Loved Women (1977) is one of my least favorite Truffaut films, a situation doubtless exacerbated by the reflected shame of the head-scratching eponymous 1983 Blake Edwards/Burt Reynolds/Julie Andrews/Kim Basinger remake.

Ending on a generally high note, 7/26 opens with Day for Night (1973), Truffaut’s love letter to filmmaking itself, in which he really stretches his range by playing a director, joined by Jacqueline Bisset and Léaud.  I’ve been slow to warm up to The Last Metro (1980), a tale of refugees and the Resistance during the Nazi occupation that stars Deneuve and Depardieu, but I loved The Wild Child (1970), the true story of a late-18th-century doctor (Truffaut) who tries to educate a boy raised by wolves.  As a perfect capstone, Isabelle Adjani—so luminous in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979)—impressively portrays the mental deterioration of Victor Hugo’s daughter in The Story of Adele H (1975)…which, oddly, is not the only film in which we see Adjani go spectacularly mad, e.g., Possession (1981).

The two films not being shown are, fortuitously, both in the Bradley Video Library:  Fahrenheit 451 (1966), his love-it-or-hate-it adaptation of the late Ray Bradbury’s classic SF novel, featuring Werner, Julie Christie in a dual role, and another Herrmann score, and Small Change (1976), a largely improvised composite character study of the children in a small French town, played by non-actors, which is better than it sounds (at least to me).  Meanwhile, inspired by this outpouring of Truffaut-Amour, I’m doing something long overdue, dusting off some of the tapes I made when TCM devoted a similarly thorough marathon to Akira Kurosawa to honor his centennial back in 2010.  In this, at least, Madame BOF is my eager co-pilot, and we’ve already traveled back to the beginnings of his directorial career with The Most Beautiful (1944) and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945); on deck at the moment are my first viewings of Sanshiro Sugata Part Two (1945) and No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), plus One Wonderful Sunday (1947).

Addendum:  Film Forum did finally send me a printed schedule.  “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles…”

Bradley out.

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Comme d’habitude, Turner Classic Movies will salute—pun intended—the sacrifice and bravery of our fighting men and women with its annual 48-hour Memorial Day weekend war-movie marathon, but this year, without even consulting me, they have scheduled six of my favorite films ever (not just war movies, mind you, but movies in general, as demonstrated by the fact that together they constitute 6% of the B100), back to back, for more than sixteen hours of World War II wonderment on Monday. Personally, I can think of no better way to spend the day, but I’ll be remembering in my own way with a visit to Alexandra in Washington, D.C., in the company of the two Mrs. Bradleys; luckily, I own all of these movies, and am already half-way through a pre-emptive strike with The Guns of Navarone. For those of you lucky enough to kick back with a big bucket of KFC and some TCM, here’s a handy-dandy viewing guide, with newly expanded versions of my B100 reviews, and as I look over this list, I guess it says something about me that almost none of these is a traditional flag-waver (Navarone probably comes closest)…but isn’t making you stop and think about war what Memorial Day is all about?

  • Where Eagles Dare (11:45 AM): Quite simply The Greatest Movie Ever Made. Okay, I’m kidding, but it is my personal favorite. Only Alistair MacLean could have concocted this complex tale of triple agents, centering on a commando mission ostensibly to rescue an American general, who knows the details of the D-Day invasion plans, from an inaccessible Bavarian chateau! (I’ve always loved my war movies tinged with espionage, and when he was on his game—which wasn’t always—MacLean was unmatched at that.) Only Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood (in perhaps his only true second-banana role, for which he reportedly requested less dialogue), and the ill-fated Mary Ure could play the stalwart leads, who massacre countless German soldiers with only one flesh wound among them! Only Ferdy Mayne (The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Vampire Lovers), Anton Diffring (The Man Who Could Cheat Death), Donald Houston (reunited with Burton from The Longest Day), and Derrin Nesbitt could play the nasty Nazi villains! Only Brian G. Hutton could direct the exciting action scenes, including the famous cable-car fight! Only Ron Goodwin could compose the rousing, unforgettable score; I even have the soundtrack album on both LP and CD! I also have a first edition of the novel (based on MacLean’s script, but published before the film was released, resulting in decades of chicken-vs.-egg confusion), and even the spot-on Mad magazine parody, “Where Vultures Fare.”
  • The Guns of Navarone (2:30 PM): Immortalized by the very youthful Alexandra as Guns Forever Known. Considering the subsequent and steady decline of director/boozer J. Lee Thompson’s career (e.g., the staggeringly inept Messenger of Death), this is astonishingly good, the first of the MacLean adaptations and one of those that holds up the best. It was, I believe, also the first of the big-budget, star-studded WW II films that were as much rousing adventure as searing drama (like, say, The Bridge on the the River Kwai), and I also think of it as a prototype for the specialized-manly-men-on-a-mission tales like Richard Brooks’s Western The Professionals. Stalwart Gregory Peck, formidable Anthony Quinn, and dubious David Niven join Irene Papas and commandos Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, and James Darren on the usual impossible mission on a German-held Greek island during WWII. Not many action films make me mist up, but this one has a beautifully reflective coda, featuring the softer side of Dimitri Tiomkin’s majestic score, that gets me every time. Despite being directed by Guy (Goldfinger) Hamilton, the belated sequel, Force 10 from Navarone (with Robert Shaw and Edward Fox highly unlikely in the Peck and Niven roles, plus Harrison Ford and The Spy Who Loved Me‘s Barbara Bach), is vastly inferior, I’m sorry to say, so stick with the original.
  • The Dirty Dozen (5:15 PM): Robert Aldrich directed this unconventional and influential war movie, based on E.M. Nathanson’s fine novel. Lee Marvin has the unenviable task of trying to forge twelve convicts into a viable fighting unit for a suicide mission in occupied France on the eve of D-Day. The superb cast is full of up-and-coming stars, and includes Donald Sutherland (“Never heard of it”), Charles Bronson (the only member of both The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven), Telly Savalas (unforgettable as the psychotic Maggott), Jim Brown (MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra), John Cassavetes (Rosemary’s Baby), and Clint Walker among the dozen, plus Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly), and Richard Jaeckel. Aldrich’s trademark genre-subverting style is in full force here, especially with the Last Supper homage, as he makes us root for these misanthropic misfits, and yet, as in The Wild Bunch, these criminals have their own sometimes admirable code of honor.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (8:00 PM): No offense to Lawrence of Arabia, but I think this is David Lean’s greatest film. It swept the major Oscars (obviously excepting Best Actress) and deserved all of them. William Holden and Oscar-winner Alec Guinness are at their stellar best as, respectively, an American who leads a demolition team back to the Japanese POW camp from which he’s just escaped, and the British colonel who wages a war of wills with the commandant (Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa) and ends up taking too much pride in the bridge his men are building. Originally omitted from the credits in favor of Pierre Boulle (author of Planet of the Apes, oddly enough), who wrote the novel, blacklisted screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman (The Guns of Navarone) received posthumous Oscars in 1984. The ending is somewhat different from Boulle’s but, not surprisingly, more cinematic. Holden has always been one of my favorites, especially here and in The Wild Bunch, and the ferocity with which he delivers his unforgettable speech to Jack Hawkins (“You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman—how to die by the rules—when the only important thing is how to live like a human being!”) still gives me a frisson. With James Donald (Quatermass and the Pit, The Great Escape), Hammer mainstay André Morell, and superb music by Malcolm Arnold (who seemed to quote it in every other damn picture he scored!).
  • The Great Escape (11:00 PM): Turafish considers this The Greatest Movie Ever Made. I won’t go that far, but it’s right up there. Director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, and cast members Steve McQueen (who, typically, demanded that his part be beefed up to include the famous motorcycle chase), Bronson, and James Coburn are reunited from The Magnificent Seven for this true story co-scripted by James Clavell. During World War II, the Germans decide to place all of their rotten eggs in one basket by herding their most troublesome prisoners into a single camp. Naturally, this leads to a legendary, albeit only partly successful, mass breakout led by “Big X” (Richard Attenborough). The theme song is unforgettable and the cast (also including James Garner, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and Gordon Jackson) is unparalleled. Not everyone would probably consider this a war movie, since the cast spends most of its time in a POW camp rather than in combat, but the point is made that by forcing the Germans to devote time and manpower to trying to round up the escapees, they’re keeping them away from the front lines. Besides, for many, being a prisoner of war is part of being a soldier, which is something we would do well to remember on this of all days. “Two hundred and fifty? You’re crazy—you, too.”
  • Kelly’s Heroes (2:00 AM): Eastwood was reunited with Where Eagles Dare director Hutton for this humorous caper film with a World War II setting and a Vietnam-era sensibility, filmed in Yugoslavia, where they still had lots of vintage military hardware available (future director John Landis was a young PA on the film). The members of Clint’s platoon have been getting the short end of the stick since they hit the beach at Omaha, so when they learn of a fortune in Nazi gold kept in a bank behind enemy lines in occupied France, they decide to do a little extracurricular activity (a plot borrowed for the Gulf War film Three Kings). With a stellar cast (Savalas, Sutherland, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor), excellent dialogue courtesy of the late Troy Kennedy Martin, an outstanding score by Lalo Schifrin, and a Leone/Wild Bunch parody. Along with The Dirty Dozen, this is clearly the most cynical of our little sextet, yet the cost of war is not ignored (I’m thinking in particular of the poignant aftermath of the minefield sequence, which always chokes me up), while those who enjoy slam-bang battle scenes will not be disappointed, and overall it makes some keen observations about the regular joes at the sharp end of war. Relax and enjoy.

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The life part is easy, because it being the wee hours of Christmas Day as I write this, we’re now celebrating the birth of J.C., despite being the least prepared for this holiday we have ever been.  Kicking off a ten-day vacation, I slept until 10:00, finished writing a Matheson post for Tor.com, and availed myself of the last opportunity for some, uh, “quality time” with the wife before our daughter and her boyfriend fly in from Oregon.  Then we gorged ourselves on corned beef (an unusual gift from the senior Mrs. B., who sent us a Box o’ Ruben Fixin’s from Zabar’s in New York) and I slipped in a nap, with Mina sleeping on my lap, and a workout on my exercise bike, while embarking on Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951), before I had to shower and change for church.

Although I’m technically an agnostic, Madame BOF and I attend a local Congregational church and are in the choir, singing on Christmas Eve at 7:30 and 11:00.  In addition to the traditional carols for which we join the congregation (e.g., “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night, Holy Night”), this year we did a pretty French carol, “Saw You Never, in the Twilight,” and a rousing English one, “Masters in This Hall.”  In between the two services, we repair to the home of a fellow choir member for potluck food and drink—albeit hopefully not too much of the latter—and a nicer bunch of people to sing or socialize with cannot be imagined.

The death part is a little trickier, and I’ll state at the outset that this is going to be one of those I’m-not-really-crazy-about-So-and-So-but-feel-I-must-acknowledge-their-passing posts, in this case (belatedly) that of writer-director Blake Edwards, who left us on the 15th at 88.  Without wishing to speak ill of the dead, especially on Christmas, it’s become a running gag among the Movie Knights that our Host with the Most will not allow any Edwards films to be shown, yet he takes his Hostly duties seriously enough that more than once he’s made exceptions for a Knight to see his favorite Pink Panther film.  Gilbert loves A Shot in the Dark (1964), I favor The Return of… (1975), and the mighty Turafish comes down squarely on the side of …Strikes Again (1976).

I’m sure part of Gil’s fondness for Shot is due to the fact that William Peter Blatty, whom people forget worked in comedy before he struck gold with The Exorcist (we’re still waiting to receive the new issue of Cinema Retro featuring our interview with Bill), co-wrote that and three other films with Edwards.  Yet I’ve seen two more, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) and Darling Lili (1970)—the latter starring Julie Andrews, who married Edwards the year before—and didn’t care for either of them.  I haven’t seen Gunn (1967) or the Edwards-created private-eye TV series that spawned it, although I absolutely adore the driving theme song (especially the Art of Noise version) by Henry Mancini, his longtime, and perhaps most valuable, collaborator.

Interestingly, as much as I admire Peter Sellers (TCM’s star of the month for January), I also saw the only non-Inspector Clouseau movie he made with Edwards, The Party (1968), and found that painfully unfunny.  This suggests that Clouseau created a special alchemy among Sellers, Blatty and/or Edwards that may not have existed elsewhere, just as director Jack Arnold and producer William Alland seemed to do better work together than apart.  And because the Edwards/Sellers relationship was a fractious one, it also calls to mind a milder version of the almost murderous love-hate bond between director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski, which was documented in Herzog’s My Best Fiend (1999), and nonetheless produced some brilliant work…but I digress.

Edwards worked as an actor and screenwriter before graduating to director, making several films with Tony Curtis:  Mister Cory (1957), The Perfect Furlough (1958), and Operation Petticoat (1959); in spite of Cary Grant’s presence in the latter, I think that as an undiscriminating teen, I actually preferred the TV spin-off.  Now, I’m not dumb enough to say that I think Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) isn’t a good movie, but I will say it wasn’t my cup of tea, nor was I crazy about his other pre-Panther successes such as Experiment in Terror or Days of Wine and Roses (both 1962).  I’ll also freely admit that my feelings toward Days have since been colored by my loyalty to John Frankenheimer, who directed the Playhouse 90 version and was passed over for the film.

The Pink Panther (1963) changed everything, giving Mancini his second immortal theme, and if the scenes involving top-billed David Niven and his aspiring jewel-thief nephew Robert Wagner have aged less well, Sellers steals the film with no less aplomb.  The eponymous diamond did not appear in many of the sequels, but as with The Thin Man (1934), the inaccurate name stuck, eventually becoming synonymous with Clouseau himself.  It’s clear from his contemporaneous work with Stanley Kubrick on Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) that when Sellers was on, nobody could touch him as a comic genius, and the early Clouseau films bear this out, but I would agree with Hostly that they—selectively, at that—are the only Edwards movies to watch.

Although I seem to recall that a case could be made for Victor Victoria (1982), my impression is that most of his subsequent non-Panther films—although, God knows, I didn’t subject myself to all of them—relied overmuch on slapstick, toilet humor, mean-spiritedness, or some combination thereof.  I’m thinking particularly of 10 (1979), despite the frenzy over cornrowed Bo Derek, and S.O.B. (1981), for which he persuaded wholesome spouse Julie to bear her breasts.  But his worst sin was milking the Panther series beyond Hollywood’s most avaricious dreams, descending into first a patchwork quilt utilizing outtakes of Sellers from …Strikes Again (Trail of…, 1982), and then a pair of films in which Clouseau does not even appear (Curse of…, 1983; Son of…, 1993).

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Naval Gazing

When the good folks at TCM recently chose Gregory Peck as their Star of the Month, it gave me the chance to revisit an old favorite that I had seen many times over the years, but not for quite a while, Raoul Walsh’s Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951).  Now, I am not normally a big naval-adventure guy; I’ve never read Patrick O’Brian’s work, and despite my affection for Peter Weir, I was “just whelmed,” as Dad used to say, by his Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).  But I’m here to tell you that after seeing this film in my youth, I went out and bought and read all eleven volumes in C.S. Forester’s superb series about the Napoleonic Wars.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Forester was an excellent writer, and although his filmography is relatively lean, as Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike (1952), “what’s there is cherce.”  The very same year in which Peck hit the high seas, Humphrey Bogart earned his overdue and only Oscar opposite Kate in the screen adaptation of Forester’s The African Queen.  Another BOF fave, Cary Grant, starred in Stanley Kramer’s The Pride and the Passion (1957), based on Forester’s The Gun, and starting in the 1990s, Ioan Gruffud (later well cast as Reed Richards in the disappointing Fantastic Four films) made an excellent Hornblower on A&E.

Warner Brothers apparently acquired the property as a vehicle for studio mainstay and longtime Walsh collaborator Errol Flynn, but that idea fell by the wayside for various reasons, and I can’t say I’m sorry.  I am second to none in my affection for Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he would have been wrong for the part (as would Burt Lancaster, also considered).  TCM host Robert Osborne tells us that when the indigenous critics gave Peck high marks for this British-made film, it was rare for an American playing a Brit; significantly, leading lady Virginia Mayo was reportedly cast only after several British actresses proved unavailable or uninterested.

The praise is justified, for Peck is excellent in the role, although bolstered by skillful storytelling in which we learn about Hornblower’s character—or at least his public persona—from what his officers and crew say about him.  He must be ramrod-straight on the outside to command their respect and obedience, yet part of his appeal is that no matter how often he succeeds, he is full of self-doubt.  This ranks with Moby Dick (1956), On the Beach (1959), and The Guns of Navarone (1961) among my Peck favorites, and while I have issues with his two Alfred Hitchcock films, Spellbound (1945) and The Paradine Case (1947), those do not concern Peck’s performances.

Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. (as it is known in its native land, “R.N.” standing for Royal Navy) doesn’t exactly feature an all-star cast, yet there are some interesting names among the supporting players, starting with Robert Beatty as his best friend, Lt. William Bush.  Beatty later appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1969), and Richard Matheson’s miniseries The Martian Chronicles (1980), while an unnamed Spanish sea captain is played by Christopher Lee, briefly engaging in swordplay with Peck.  Also among Hornblower’s crew are James Robertson Justice and Stanley Baker, both of whom were reunited with Peck in Navarone.

Ordered to aid a Central American tyrant rebelling against Napoleon’s ally, Spain, Hornblower secures him a Spanish ship, only to learn that Spain has changed sides and he must destroy his prize.  Circumstances compel him to take Lady Barbara Wellesley aboard, and after she displays courage under fire his admiration grows into something more, but because he is married and she engaged, their love seems impossible; returning home, he discovers that his wife has died in childbirth.  Captured on their next mission and sent to Paris for trial, Hornblower, Bush, and Seaman Quist (Justice) escape en route, steal a ship, and return to England, where a widowed Barbara awaits.

Hornblower fans may be surprised to see that according to the credits, this film is based on “the novel” by Forester, since Captain Horatio Hornblower—the first book to appear, but not the first chronologically—is now published in three volumes:  Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors.  Forester is credited with adapting the film from his work, presumably accounting for its fidelity despite the inevitable compression.  The other scenarists were Aeneas MacKenzie, who co-wrote the Flynn/Walsh They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and the team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, Oscar nominees for the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957).

There must have been a special place in Guy-Movie Heaven waiting for Walsh when he got there in 1980, and although a British naval saga might not immediately seem his cup of tea, it fits into his half-century as one of Hollywood’s greatest action directors.  He worked with Bogart on The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and Bogie’s breakthrough hit, High Sierra (1941).  Walsh also directed Flynn in Desperate Journey, Gentleman Jim (both 1942), Northern Pursuit (1943), Objective, Burma! (1945), and Silver River (1948), among others, while James Cagney’s gangster classic White Heat (1949) was an earlier Goff-Roberts-Mayo collaboration.

Composer Robert Farnon, whose BOF-centric credits include The Road to Hong Kong (1962), Bear Island (1979), and the series The Prisoner and The Champions, was adept at capturing the story’s many moods, from rollicking to romantic.  Indeed, those moods helped endear Captain Horatio Hornblower to me, especially in its judicious use of humor, as Bush repeatedly wagers (and wins) on his captain’s actions.  With Mayo as lovely and appealing as she was opposite Bob Hope and Danny Kaye in, respectively, The Princess and the Pirate (1944) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), this offers thrills, laughter, and love—in short, something for everyone.

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Here at BOF, we note with respect the passing of screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz—who died July 31 at the age of 68 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer—as much for his legendary pedigree as for his not terribly voluminous body of work.  He was the son of writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who netted Oscars in both capacities for the backstage drama All About Eve (1950), and the nephew of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who could well have rested on his laurels after collaborating with Orson Welles on the script of Citizen Kane (1941), but went on to do other memorable films such as The Pride of the Yankees (1942).  Many another filmmaking Mankiewicz, whom I shall not enumerate, populated the family, and Tom was also a cousin of TCM host Ben Mankeiwicz.

Tom Mankiewicz was best known for his work on two successful cinematic franchises, one of which is near and dear to my heart.  He joined the James Bond series with Diamonds Are Forever (1971), which marked Sean Connery’s return to the role after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and stayed with it through the transition to Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  I’ve read that he also worked, uncredited, on The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979), and he had a hand in Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), although billed only as a “creative consultant.”

I actually have mixed feelings about his work, because as much as I liked Live and Let Die, which was the only entry on which Mankeiwicz had sole screenwriting credit, I felt that the comic thrust he introduced started to pull the series downhill.  Richard Maibaum, a Bond mainstay from Dr. No (1962) to License to Kill (1989), teamed up on Diamonds and Golden Gun with Mankiewicz, and on Spy with Christopher Wood, with whose Moonraker things really started to bottom out.  Quite coincidentally, I recently watched Diamonds for the umpteenth time, and felt more strongly than ever that it was less than the sum of its parts, more like a series of set pieces than an organic whole, with the humor much too pronounced after the splendid OHMSS.

Not surprisingly, my biggest beef with the Superman films is their jokiness, with Christopher Reeve solid as Superman but overly nerdy as Clark Kent, and the villains—especially Ned Beatty—way too buffoonish to pose a serious threat.  Discussing the initial box-office failure of Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time (1980), Reeve even wrote in his memoir Still Me, “In retrospect, I think that because I had worked on Superman for so long, my characterization of Clark Kent may have crept into Richard Collier.”  Conversely, one of Mankiewicz’s few films as a director was Dragnet (1987), and whether you think turning Jack Webb’s oh-so-serious TV show into a comedy movie was a good idea or not, I appreciated that it was at least supposed to be a comedy.

The rest of the Mankiewicz oeuvre was a mixed bag, ranging from extensive involvement with the TV series Hart to Hart and another comedic directorial outing, Delirious (1991), to an odd triple of screenwriting efforts in 1976.  Mother, Jugs & Speed was a comedy that didn’t live up to its cast, with Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, and Harvey Keitel in the respective title roles, while The Cassandra Crossing featured an all-star cast in the tale of a deadly disease running rampant aboard a train.  Best of the bunch was The Eagle Has Landed, directed by the great John Sturges and adapted from the Jack Higgins bestseller about a group of German paratroopers (led by Michael Caine) on a secret mission to kidnap Churchill, which proved that when he wanted to, Mankiewicz could deliver the thrills straight up.

May he rest in peace.

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I’m always happy to salute a fellow Matheson scholar, especially one as dedicated to his particular niche as John David Scoleri, who maintains The I Am Legend Archive (see link below right) and its associated blog. His aim is nothing less than to collect and catalog every edition published of this seminal 1954 vampire classic, along with offering pertinent interviews—e.g., Charlton Heston, Steve Niles—and other information devoted to the novel on page and screen. Although my friend and colleague Paul Stuve, who has been an enormous help on every project since Duel & The Distributor, is a Matheson collector par excellence, I can’t remember off the top of my head whether he has so single-mindedly sought out all manifestations of each work.

There is admittedly a partial element of self-interest here, since I have contributed to not one but two relevant volumes published by Gauntlet Press, including a Classics Revisited edition of I Am Legend with my introduction. Their trade paperback collection Visions Deferred contains the script Matheson adapted for the unproduced Hammer version The Night Creatures, as well as two other unfilmed scripts and some background material I originally wrote for Duel & The Distributor. But my main interest is simply to spread the word about Matheson’s extraordinary career, and I still think that I Am Legend (which I first read in 1979 in the Omega Man tie-in edition) is probably his best novel.

I’m sorry to see that The Last Man on Film, the book John and David Allen Brown had planned to write on the various screen adaptations of I Am Legend, is indefinitely on hold. Much as I’d like to believe that Richard Matheson on Screen will be the, uh, last word on his film and television oeuvre, I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that there’s always room for another good book on such a subject, especially since theirs would focus exclusively on one story. They had interviewed Matheson, Heston, and his Omega Man co-star Paul Koslo for the book, and I’m sure they have a ton of material that would put my necessarily limited sections on those films to shame.

John is obviously as obsessed with tracking down every edition of I Am Legend as I was with tracking down every Matheson-related film or television episode, and it’s interesting to note that we both hit a brick wall in one area where our specialties overlap. That would be Soy Leyenda (1967), a 15-minute black-and-white Spanish film that marked the first time the novel was adapted under its original title, albeit in translation. I’ve put what little I know about the film into my book, but it ain’t much, and neither of us has been able to track down a copy of this elusive beast, so if you know anything more about it, please let us know, even if it will be too late to include the information in Richard Matheson on Screen.

Speaking of which, I happened to catch the first few minutes of Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days on TCM the other night, and was immediately chagrined. Why, you may well ask, other than my well-known dislike for most of Anderson’s work? Because it opens with some scenes from Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and stock footage of a rocket taking off, but when I wrote my section on Master of the World, I hadn’t seen Anderson’s film for so long that I didn’t realize it apparently inspired Master’s opening “conquest of the air” montage.

C’est la vie. Bradley out.

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I’m savoring the prospect of introducing my daughter to The Blue Dahlia (1946), which I recently taped from TCM, and which I understand indirectly gave the 1947 Black Dahlia murder its name. Not because I’m under any illusion that it’s a masterpiece, but it does star the stellar screen team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (in whom, as noted, I perceive a resemblance to the youthful Madame B.), introduced in 1942 with back-to-back adaptations of Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. It also features an excellent supporting cast headed by William Bendix and Howard Da Silva and, most important, an Oscar-nominated screenwriting credit for one of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler.

Chandler (1888-1959) is, of course, better known as the creator of private eye Philip Marlowe, and one of his best films as a scenarist, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), was largely rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, with whom he shared screen credit. As is often the case, I came to Chandler’s work through the movies, specifically Howard Hawks’s 1946 version of his first novel, The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe was played by Humphrey Bogart. Since Bogart is my favorite actor, it’s no surprise that the same is true of Hammett, via John Huston’s 1941 version of his p.i. classic The Maltese Falcon, but as a lad I was too enraptured with Bogie to notice the nuances distinguishing Marlowe from Hammett’s Sam Spade.

In the novel, Spade is compared with Satan, a fact made explicit when Warren William essayed the role (albeit as “Ted Shane”) in Satan Met a Lady (1936); Ricardo Cortez was the first Spade in the 1931 version, which retained Hammett’s title and character names. Bogart’s famous line, “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it,” neatly conveys Spade’s lack of hypocrisy over the fact that, first, said partner was a skirt-chasing louse and, second, he was banging said partner’s wife. Marlowe, on the other hand, is a kind of displaced knight in tarnished armor, at once cynical and idealistic, and various interpretations have emphasized various elements of his complex character, with varying degrees of success.

Interestingly, “Marlowe” first appeared incognito in two 1942 films that are most notable for hijacking Chandler novels as vehicles for other literary and cinematic sleuths. The Falcon Takes Over shoehorned Michael Arlen’s eponymous character (played by George Sanders) into the plot of Farewell, My Lovely, while Time to Kill was a de facto adaptation of The High Window with Lloyd Nolan as Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne. In collaboration with director Billy Wilder, Chandler notched his first screenwriting credit on Double Indemnity (1944) the same year Marlowe made his official debut in Murder, My Sweet, which—with RKO Radio apparently counting on the public’s short memory—was also based on Farewell, My Lovely.

Despite Chandler’s notoriously poor relationship with Wilder (not much improved upon with Hitchcock), it must be acknowledged that Double Indemnity is a film noir milestone, and that he was an inspired choice to adapt fellow hard-boiled writer James M. Cain. In such cinema-friendly novels as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce, Cain excelled at depicting morally questionable characters who come to grief when they give in to criminal temptations, and nowhere is this milieu better captured than in the tale of adulterous murderers Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The film’s seven Oscar nominations included the script, Stanwyck, Miklós Rózsa’s score, Wilder’s direction, and Best Picture.

Sandwiched in between Chandler’s next two screenwriting gigs, And Now Tomorrow (1944) and The Unseen (1945)—neither of which I’ve seen—Murder, My Sweet marked Dick Powell’s bid to establish himself as something more than a song-and-dance man. This he did admirably as one of the screen’s better Marlowes, backed up by the villainous likes of Claire Trevor, Otto Kruger, and Mike Mazurki as Chandler’s immortal Moose Malloy, under the direction of HUAC name-dropper Edward Dmytryk. Chandler approved of the film (ditto The Big Sleep), but RKO quickly had to retitle it after previews to draw audiences who initially stayed home in droves, assuming Farewell, My Lovely to be yet another Powell musical.

Plenty of lore surrounds The Blue Dahlia, e.g., that Chandler was forced to change the ending (for reasons I can’t disclose sans spoilers) and, in order to accommodate Ladd’s imminent military service, finished the script at his home in a weeklong drunken marathon. Speaking of alcoholic authors in Hollywood, Big Bill Faulkner was credited alongside Hawks, Bogart, leading lady Lauren Bacall, and fellow scenarist Jules Furthman on both The Big Sleep (co-scripted by Leigh Brackett) and the Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not (1944). For me, Bogie was the definitive Marlowe, although the romantic side was played up to reflect his growing on- and offscreen chemistry with fourth and final wife Bacall.

To be concluded.

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Just a reminder that Turner Classic Movies kicks off its centennial celebration of legendary Japanese writer-director Akira Kurosawa tonight at 8:00 with a superb cross-section of better- and lesser-known films that display his diversity: Ikiru (1952), with the great Takashi Shimura unforgettable as a dying civil servant; Throne of Blood (1957), with Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth; The Hidden Fortress (1958), a major inspiration for Star Wars (1977); the little-seen The Idiot (1951), based on the novel by Fyodor Dosotyevsky; and The Lower Depths (1957), based on the play by Maxim Gorky. They’ll have more starting in prime time next Tuesday, and then on the 23rd, the actual 100th anniversary of his birth, they’ll pull out all the stops with a 24-hour marathon. So fire up your VCR or DVR or Tivo or just barricade yourself in front of the set, but don’t miss this chance to wallow in the work of one of the cinema’s greatest.

Speaking of TCM retrospectives, not to mention Japan, I’ve just started watching Tokyo Joe (1949), an early example of what I think of as Humphrey Bogart’s “sourpuss period.” In fact, it’s funny how neatly Bogie’s career breaks down by decade. During the 1930s, he was honing his craft and paying his dues in a series of largely similar and/or unrewarding roles, with a few standouts, e.g., The Petrified Forest (1936), Dead End (1937). The 1940s saw the full flower of his Warner Brothers years, including most of my favorites: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946). These culminated in 1948 with his Oscar-worthy The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which he was inexplicably not even nominated, and his fourth and final film with fourth and final wife Lauren Bacall, Key Largo.

Afterward, right through the ’50s to his death in 1957, he obviously tried to vary his output, especially with the films (like Tokyo Joe) made by his own production company, Santana, but the results were mixed indeed. Again, there was the occasional standout such as The African Queen (1951), for which he finally won an Oscar, and The Caine Mutiny (1954), which featured another of his best performances. For the most part, however, those later films were lackluster affairs in which one could see his hard-drinking and -smoking lifestyle catching up with him. He didn’t look any too happy to be in some of them, a sentiment I sadly shared all too often.

Anyway, I know it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Tokyo Joe, which is why I’m watching it now, even though I don’t much care for it. But it must have been longer than I thought, because I don’t remember ever seeing it with the awareness that its leading lady is Florence Marly, who (as Florence Marley) played the title role in Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966). I mean, how can I take her seriously in this film when all I can see is her in green makeup draining Dennis Hopper’s blood? Well, at least it co-stars Alexander Knox, so memorable as George Smiley’s ailing boss, Control, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), and Sessue Hayakawa, Oscar-nominated for his supporting role as the camp commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), so there should be some compensations.

One final, and truly bizarre, small-world note. As many of you know (although I didn’t mention it in my morning-after post), a woman named Elinor Burkett interrupted the Oscar acceptance speech of Roger Ross Williams, whose film Music by Prudence won for Best Documentary Short Subject. I didn’t place the name until I saw the news reports on the kerfuffle yesterday, and realized that I had once been her publicist when she and her husband, Frank Bruni, published A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church in 1993. Although I wish I had some amusing anecdote about the time we worked together, I honestly recall only an amiable relationship with her and Frank. I’m not defending her actions, and have no idea what she’s been up to in the meantime, but no “Kanye West moment” alters the fact that we were doing our best to get the word out on a subject about which I felt (and feel) strongly, at a time when far fewer people were doing so than today.

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As you can see, I have finally been able to devote some time to the bells and whistles (e.g., the “About” and “Publications” pages), so you’ll have to content yourself with those while I work on my next “real” post.  A point of possible interest is the fact that the collage behind me is not a product of PhotoShop, but an actual collage I created on the wall of my workstation at the now-defunct GoodTimes Entertainment, where the photos were taken.  And yes, that is the benevolent presence of Richard Matheson looming to the right.  My very special thanks to the anonymous benefactor who synthesized the above image.

Meanwhile, a correction:  as I near the end of series 2, I realize that Reggie Perrin’s shop (see “Grot Expectations”), while it might reasonably have been expected to fail, was never intended to fail.  My apologies.

Finally, in the Life’s Little Ironies Department, it seems that Film Forum is not alone in celebrating a certain filmmaker’s 100th (see “Kurosawa Centennial”).  Fresh from knocking my socks off with an incredibly inclusive Bogart retrospective in December, TCM has scheduled a line-up nearly identical to Film Forum’s Akira Kurosawa festival, airing every Tuesday in March (including a 24-hour birthday marathon on the 23rd).  It does not, however, include The Quiet Duel…which is some consolation after all of the time and money I just spent trekking into Manhattan on three successive Sundays to see that and three of the same rarities now upcoming on TCM.  Once again, there being only so many hours in the day, I’ll be focusing not on the obvious films like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo, but on some of the lesser-known ones that I’ve seen only once or not at all.  Can’t wait.

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As noted, I have been using the occasion of TCM’s recent Humphrey Bogart retrospective (from which I taped no fewer than 25 films) to seek some larger patterns in Bogie’s career.  At least as interesting as his working relationships with lesser-known directors such as Lloyd Bacon [see “Makin’ Bacon”] were his collaborations with Mark Hellinger, a writer-producer from the Walter Winchell school of journalism.  They did not get off to an auspicious start, as Hellinger reportedly penned an uncredited treatment for Racket Busters (1938), which I have already mentioned unfavorably.  But then, one of his stories served as the basis for Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939), which—although it did not offer Bogie much more than the “supporting-gangster” role he often played opposite Warner Brothers stablemates James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft in that period—was at least one of the most accomplished of those films, and proved to be Cagney’s last gangster role until Walsh’s White Heat (1949) a decade later.

As a result of its success, Warners made Hellinger a producer, and it’s noteworthy that although Bogie played gangsters in three of his four consecutive Hellinger-produced efforts, the films and his roles varied considerably.  It All Came True (1940) is a light-hearted film in which Bogart, while on the lam, takes refuge in a boarding house populated by eccentrics who (along with Word-Man fave Ann Sheridan) gradually reform him.  Brother Orchid (1940) is a similarly comedic crime caper, in which Robinson—left for dead after an attempted rubout orchestrated by rival Bogart—finds temporary refuge in a monastery.  A change of pace was Walsh’s excellent They Drive by Night (1940), with Raft and Bogart as trucker brothers.  Bogie loses an arm after falling asleep at the wheel, while Raft gets Sheridan; the scene in which Ida Lupino cracks up on the witness stand, after she falls for Raft and then jealously frames him for the murder of hubby Alan Hale, is classic.  Finally, Bogie took a big step toward stardom with his multifaceted gangster Roy Earle in Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), co-scripted by John Huston, who would soon make his directorial debut with Bogart’s breakout hit The Maltese Falcon (1941).  If you’ve ever had a hankering to see Eddie (Green Acres) Albert as a lion-tamer, check out the one he made (post-Hellinger) in between, The Wagons Roll at Night (1941).  This remake of Bogart’s own Kid Galahad (1937) substitutes the big top for the boxing ring, with Bogie, Silvia Sidney and Albert in the roles originally played by Robinson, Bette Davis and Wayne Morris.  It’s almost certainly the only film in which Bogie meets his fate at the claws of a lion…and no, I’m not making this up.

But I digress, as usual.  For the next few years, Hellinger flitted back and forth among Warners, Fox, and Universal, during which time he joined Bogart in front of the camera, playing himself in a cameo in Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943).  Bogart’s own scene is mercifully brief, as a tough guy who is browbeaten by, of all people, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (delightful as Carl, the waiter in Casablanca), but because the film was one of those all-star studio extravaganzas to raise funds for World War II, I will not complain.  Hellinger died suddenly (at 44) in 1947, but not before he had produced the noir classics The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and The Naked City (1948)…and, alas, one of Bogart’s all-time worst films, The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), in which he plays a wife-killer (as he did in the similarly unfortunate Conflict [1945]) targeting Barbara Stanwyck as his next victim.

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